Watching late night Kansas basketball in Lawrence, Kansas in the middle of July is a bit of a surreal experience.
Summertime is about the only time when the town doesn't take a back seat to the University. Lighter by about 15 to 20 thousand in population, late nights on Mass. Street take on a much more laid back feel.
As I put it in an article I recently wrote for LFK Magazine:
"The University of Kansas, in so many ways, helps to make this town a great, open and cultured place to live. All too often though, Lawrence can be a place dominated and influenced by University-driven transience and fluidity. So, summers in Lawrence are when the town is truly itself."
As someone who's been both resident and student in Lawrence, I can tell you the town needs a break from the students as much as they need a break from school.
After six weeks of townie and student separation, any rah, rah Jayhawkedness in July feels bizarrely alien.
So when my buddy called me up at 9:30 this past Tuesday night, asking if I was interested in hitting the bars to watch the Kansas (team USA) vs Serbia World University basketball game, I had to stop for a second like an amnesiac. "Kansas basketball? Serbia? What the hell are you talking about?"
Basketball game nights in Lawrence from November through March are pretty much standing room only affairs at most bars downtown. Loud as hell. For tournament games, amplify that by five. For Final Four games, go ahead and crank it to 10, fueled by an entire day of public intoxication and the possibility of rushing out of the bars and choking Mass. Street with a mass of humanity that won't disperse until well after 3 a.m.
On Tuesday night, July 7, the bars seemed more like echo filled caverns, the people there spread out at their respective tables, sipping drinks and speaking in quiet courteous tones on the topics of everything but basketball. It was a Jayhawks ghost town.
We hit Merchants for their happy hour specials. 30+ beers - and we aren't talking swill here - for $2.50 a piece. The fancy dress of the very small amount of people throughout the bar made my buddy and his girlfriend, standing in their crimson and blue bball gear, look like a couple who had the gall to wear cargo shorts to a wedding.
This place was so unprepared for us that I had to request the game be turned on the big screen that was just showing random commercials in silence.
"What? The KU basketball game?" The bartender asked. "There's no game on." Points the remote toward the big television in the corner. Click. Click. Click. Bill Self standing with his arms crossed.
Two minutes in, and two more friends showed up to join our group. The eyes at the other tables pitched toward us as if a biker gang were amassing in the northwest corner of the quiet bar. When Wayne Selden snaked his way down the lane and threw down a one handed dunk, our table let out a loud cheer that seemed to ricochet off of every point, post and stool. I even caught myself off guard with how much I inexplicably seemed to care. It was all coming back. In a college town, a college basketball town, Lawrence's collective Jayhawk fandom may take a needed summertime nap, but it never truly sleeps.
At halftime it was time to go. We made our way to the Burger Stand. Found a few more 'Hawks fans there to watch the game. One even sporting a gray colored Wiggins jersey. We nodded in approval of our mutual existence. As the game tightened up down the stretch, our combined volume began to permeate and raise the interest and excitement levels among the other tables sparsely filled with people trying to eat.
As the game rounded to a close, it ticked closer to midnight Lawrence time. More people filtered in to see the 'Hawks erasing a deficit and then taking the lead on the Serbians.
"What is this?" They asked, perplexed by the memory of Frank Mason's face slowly coming back to them. "The Jayhawks are playing?"
Close enough to the Jayhawks.
Close enough for July at least. Close enough for July.